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Positive Psychology

Positive Psychology Takes a New Look at Happiness

When happiness means more than feeling good.

The emphasis in positive psychology has, since its inception, focused on happiness as the key feature of well-being. The most widely-used survey studies of well-being typically ask participants to rate their current, momentary, happiness on a scale of 1 to 10. Using these results, entire countries base their policy decisions on how happy their citizens say they are.

Ask yourself how you would rate your happiness, this very moment, on that 1 to 10 scale. As you do so, what becomes the basis for your response? Did something good just happen to you? Were you scanning your social media feeds and a friend just posted a funny video? On the other hand, have you just learned some disturbing personal news? Did a friend fall ill to the coronavirus? Or were you scanning social media and learned that a favorite celebrity passed away? You may therefore be providing two very different happiness ratings depending on the chain of events to which you were recently exposed.

This idea of rating how happy you are as the key factor to examine in positive psychology, as you can see, has some inherent messiness. According to a new paper by GUI Galway’s Michael J. Hogan (2020), that type of positive psychology is version 1.0, or PP1.0. Advocated by University of Pennsylvania’s Martin Seligman, for example, PP1.0 “pointed to simple happiness solutions” as “a stark contrast with dystopian worldviews.” In other words, positive psychology in its initial approach stood as an antidote to what you might call “negative psychology,” or an emphasis on psychopathology rather than psychological health.

Now, returning to your own happiness rating, the assumption of PP1.0 is that you’re marking your score based on how good you are feeling at the moment. However, the new version of positive psychology, or PP2.0, emphasizes that a more useful measure of well-being takes into account more than just your fleeting happiness. As Hogan observes, PP2.0 rests on the four pillars of virtue, meaning, resilience, and well-being rather than on the single criterion of happiness. You may not be “happy” right now, but you can still feel your life has meaning and that you have the inner strength to cope with the challenges that come your way.

To address this disconnect between happiness and deeper levels of satisfaction, Hogan proposes a model that characterizes people as falling into one of four well-being types. One group tries to optimize their positive emotions while also denying the reality of some of their negative experiences. A second feels unhappy because they see the complexity of the world around them but fail to sustain their own positive affect. The third group, most at risk of poor psychological health, includes people who have a negative view of themselves and the world. Finally, those in the fourth group maintain high levels of positive affect while, at the same time, allowing themselves to empathize with the problems in the world around them.

The Irish psychologist therefore advocates for including a collective, or collaborative, dimension into the measurement of well-being. Being happy means more than feeling good, in other words. Additionally, a collaborative version of positive psychology emphasizes how larger systems affect your own personal well-being. Consider how this would occur in your own life. Perhaps you’re a college student, struggling with what to do about your uncertain future in the age of COVID-19. Is your institution offering tuition assistance, help with remote learning, and advising services? If so, this can help give you the reassurance you need to bolster your individual coping resources.

This example shows, in the words of Hogan, that “collective dynamics are critical in shaping pathways of human development.” As he observes, times are bad right now, with prevalent “environmental degradation, pandemics, political polarisation and conflict, war, crime, poverty, chronic disease, mental illness, social disengagement, and inequality.” Although these crises “provoke horror, distress, anger, sadness, guilt, and shame,” it is possible, through collaboration, to respond with “greater solidarity, collective intelligence, and collective wisdom.”

All of this may sound very well and good, you think, but how can PP2.0 help people turn the corner on all of these serious problems? Can both collective and individual levels of well-being ever be restored? One approach, Hogan maintains, involves a shift in values from individual mastery to collective solidarity. For example, consider the classic work-life balance problem in which people struggle to fulfill the demands of their job with those of their family. In a mastery-oriented approach, you try to be the best you can in each domain which, as you can probably attest, can create enormous personal stress.

You might be in this situation now as you try to balance your job (whether working from home or in person) with the fact that schools and daycare centers are closed. If you try to solve this problem on your own, you’ll soon feel burned out and worn down (if you aren’t already). A collective solution, in contrast, “might involve reinforcing an organisational culture that allows for more ‘accommodations’, and more flexible goal pursuit across work, home, and life demands.” In other words, your employer’s willingness to adapt to the realities of your situation at an organizational level can help you accomplish your goals in each of your life domains while at the same time feeling less stressed. You’ll be a better worker as a result, but you'll also experience less daily strain.

This is just one example that Hogan cites of how working at the systems level can promote what he calls “sustainable well-being.” To be effective, moreover, changes at this broader level should incorporate the views of the people affected by whatever policies are adopted. You would probably prefer that your employer ask you what you’d like to see in the way of more flexible accommodations than to be handed the policy change down as a pronouncement. The people affected by these decisions should be consulted in what the author refers to as “collective intelligence” (CI) systems thinking methods.

Putting this approach into practical terms, Hogan cites several cases for a number of large-scale projects ranging from designing a new well-being measure for Ireland (vs. the single-item happiness ratings), mediating conflicts and improving Tribal Governance in Native American communities, and facilitating youth stakeholder engagement in designing mental health services in Ireland. The key to all of these problems is gathering teams together to go through a collaborative back-and-forth until satisfactory outcomes can be achieved.

Returning to that work-life balance issue, perhaps your employer sets up a task force to figure out how to accommodate work schedules for more flextime. To fit the collaborative positive psychology model, this group would ideally set goals, test out solutions by getting feedback from workers, and adjust accordingly until a roadmap can be developed to achieve those goals. Someone needs to facilitate this process and to fit the collaborative model, the group members should be encouraged to engage in dialogue. In other words, the leader can’t just monopolize the conversation, as perhaps has happened to you in some of the less productive team meetings you’ve attended.

This new view of positive psychology, with its emphasis on promoting system-level changes, requires that “an innovative society capable of addressing shared problems requires an educated population who can collaborate, deliberate and learn together.” You don’t have to be an expert to engage in this process, but there is the requirement that group processes work together in a systematic fashion rather than haphazardly trying to force some type of consensus.

Again, thinking about your own experiences, when a group that you were part of formed breakout sessions, did you feel convinced that the sessions had structure? Did you see an action plan emerging? If so, then this is the model advocated by the new collaborative positive psychology approach.

To sum up, you can clearly see that positive psychology has moved on from its original “don’t worry, be happy” mentality. This greater appreciation of the depth needed to understand well-being and the steps needed to foster it at broad social levels may very well be, in the words of the authors, “essential for the future survival, adaptation, and flourishing of human beings.”

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Hogan, M. J. (2020). Collaborative positive psychology: solidarity, meaning, resilience, wellbeing, and virtue in a time of crisis. International Review of Psychiatry, 1-15. doi:10.1080/09540261.2020.1778647